Eco-Injustice in Okinawa: Please Help Save the Dugong

I must preface this article with a declaration of respect for our Troops. The U.S. Military is an indisputably vital institution; the courageous men and women who risk their lives every day so we can live in peace and safety deserve our respect, appreciation, and reverence for their immense sacrifices. Here, I on behalf of the Cornucopia Foundation do not in any way mean to attack the name or actions of our brave fighters, but only to highlight the environmental implications of planned base expansions. Thank you.

Okinawa, Japan is a cluster of populated and uninhabited islands located in the South Pacific; the region is a lush and delicate ecosystem, a hotbed of rare marine life.

It is also where 21,000 US Military Personnel are stationed and 33 military facilities are located, taking up 19% of the land area in Okinawa’s main island. While certainly a powerhouse of overseas protection for the United States and the Japanese islands, the effects of the overwhelming military presence have been devastating for the local human and non-human Okinawans.

Dugong and Turtle Cute Ocean Animals

This turtle’s friend is a Dugong. Ocean-dwelling relatives of the Florida manatee, Dugongs live in warm, coastal waters in the South Pacific, from Australia to Japan. They are the only herbivores in the world which exclusively inhabit marine environments.

Their gentle nature, slow movements, and massive, blubbery girth have made them prime targets for over-hunting for centuries. In the Philippines, the Dugong were, at one point, hunted for their meat (likened to veal), hides, and oil, nearly to extinction. Presently, according to the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species, they are classified as “Vulnerable.” However, this categorization is placed regarding the worldwide population of the Dugong, which extends as far as the east coast of Africa; the Okinawan Dugong is, in fact, a genetically unique species in comparison to the worldwide Sirenian population. While the ICUN’s categorization, numerically, places them in a category that is less threatened than their endangered Floridian cousins, it describes their position at the mercy of the military bases in Okinawa with absolute linguistic accuracy. These gentle Sirenians are, indeed,very vulnerable.

Regarding safety to human and non-human Okinawans, the military bases in Okinawa are, in short, a disaster. According to The Institute for Policy Studies, “There have been 1,434 incidents and accidents related to military exercises from 1972, when Okinawa returned to Japanese administration, until the end of December 2008, including 487 airplane-related accidents.” Besides the accidents (including fires and explosions), the animals and humans on the island suffer through immense noise pollution and over-development of military facilities. Some of this development is illegal, such as the current unauthorized building of helipads in Takae.

Japanese Dugong Eats

In 2003, the military threat to the Dugong climaxed. After many ghastly incidents regarding the U.S. Marine Corps base at Futenama, once called “most dangerous U.S. base in the world,” by Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the US planned to build a new base in Henoko. Henoko is a “treasure trove” of biodiversity, home to endangered species of coral as well as sea turtles and a population of the last 20-50 Okinawan Dugong. The military’s plans placed the sea-based airbase directly on top of the last remaining local feeding ground for the Okinawan Dugong. As a response to this impending ecological threat, a coalition of American and Japanese individuals and activist groups, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit to prevent the relocation of Futenma. As stated by the Institute for Policy Studies, “The lawsuit alleged that the Defense Department’s involvement in the construction of the facility violates the National Historic Preservation Act (‘NHPA’), which requires that US agencies take certain actions ‘[p]rior to the approval of any federal undertaking outside the United States which may directly and adversely affect a property which is on … the applicable country’s equivalent of the National Register.’ 16 U.S.C. § 470a-2.”

Finally, in 2008, the case was settled when a San Francisco judge ruled that, “the Defense Department violated the National Historic Preservation Act by failing to take into account the impact of the project on the Okinawa dugong.” (read the details of the case, here)

In short, Justice, aided by Earthjustice helped to protect the Dugong… for the moment, at least.

Dugong v. Gates was a victory for Okinawa, the Dugong, and for environmental justice as a whole. However, the battle is not yet over. Okinawa has spoken, and it wants Futenma, with all of its dangers, closed and gone from Japan.

Three years after the ruling, the US Government still plans to expand its military presence in Okinawa, despite the existence of over 30 military U.S. military bases and facilities in the region. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, “Unfortunately for the dugong and the creatures that share its habitat — including imperiled sea turtles — the United States is now considering expanding an existing airbase near Henoko in dugong habitat.”

This is where we, as citizens with a voice, can help. Please Sign the Petition to Tell President Obama to Stop US Military Expansion in Okinawa. Important conservation issues are frequently swept under the rug (remember the BP oil spill?) once they have drifted from mainstream headlines, even when their effects still are still rampant upon our Earth.

Your support is appreciated, especially by the Dugong, who desperately need our protection.

Elizabeth Neville

The Cornucopia Corner Weekly News

(2) Readers Comments

  1. Hi Elizabeth,

    Thanks so much for your sensitive post on the situation in Okinawa!

    I am not sure if you left a comment because we have dismantled that function for the time being. However, I’m linking to your blog post on our media page.

    Best, Jean Downey

  2. Hi Jean,

    We are so honored to be featured in your Media section, and you are so welcome for the post; it’s a vital conservation issue, and we felt it deserved some attention all the way in California… best wishes that the situation in Okinawa will get better.

    With Gratitude,
    Elizabeth


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